In my family and culture there is very little discussion about death and dying, though as a child I did have an intuitive understanding. When my grandfather died I felt him as a tangible presence when he was in his coffin. I quietly whispered to this gracious being: “Go to Heaven now grandpa.” I also remember at his wake how upset I became by my relatives drinking, arguing and being disrespectful to one another. In tears I sought out my grandmother and complained that everyone was making it hard for my grandpa to go to Heaven. She listened carefully to me and wiped my tears away. Then walked into the living room of her house and with quiet authority asked everyone to go home. It was much later in life, once I was exposed to Buddhist teachings on death and dying, that I realized I was not such a crazy kid after all. I had cared for my grandfather’s consciousness after his physical death. Much later in life, I knew that preparation for death was also training for life, though I did not always pay attention to this insight.
I was intrigued by the opportunity for liberation at the time of death, though I could see clearly that my ego and habits were obstacles in the way. I did want to be able to merge my consciousness at the time of death with what the Sufis call “the great magnificence.” Or if I got confused and fearful at the time of death – to receive guidance to do so. I felt that if my death is aware, then in the final state of becoming, my consciousness would take a form that would serve Mother Earth and all sentient beings. I liked this idea of recycling – it appealed to the ecologist within me! This retraining was done fitfully, not in a consistent manner until just before I left for India. There, the preparation became a daily practice of being aware of universal consciousness totally prepared to merge with my pitifully weak and not-so-awakened-mind. My leap of faith was that these understandings about death and dying were all in my mind. This meant that in everyday living I could use my mind to take the steps to prepare for that final moment of merging with the wisdom mind of the universe and do this while I was alive. Perhaps the “alive” bit is the whole point!
During my training as a guru in India I became seriously ill, but was not surprised by the lack of panic. I clearly remember Saturday, December 21, 1996 as if it were yesterday. On that day I let go of all attachments to my body and surrendered to a sense of freedom never before experienced. Throughout the day and evening I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Blooming of a Lotus from cover to cover, practicing meditations that spoke to me. I was living in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai – reserved for saints and holy men. I did not qualify for either category, yet felt their grace close at hand. One humorous manifestation of that grace occurred one morning when I woke up to find a visiting Swami sitting by my bedside. He smiled broadly and helped me to sit up, then surprised me with his words: “We are all so happy that you have decided to die in India with us, if indeed you are to die. And we will be even happier if you live.” The Swami just beamed love and understanding to me. My reply, as best I remember, was to just say: “Me too!” He made me some tea with herbs, provided a blessing and then left. When I went to sleep that Saturday night I was content and happy. Diary entries chart the journey.
December 12, 1996:
Ian called. He is so sick that he can hardly talk and his voice is unrecognizable. A cold chill ran down my spine. He says he’s had surgery and that his systems are all crashing, one by one. But he’s not afraid. I believe he is not afraid of dying if that is what’s happening. What can I do? My first instinct is to go to India, to be with him, to care for him, but no, he says this is a journey he must go through alone. I am so worried. All I can do is surround him with light and love. And I pray, I pray that God will care for him, make him well and keep him safe. Dad is in the hospital dying from heart disease, two open-heart surgeries in the last month. The doctors are amazed that he is still living. I wonder if he is afraid to die. I’m being forced to look at death, my fears, at my attachments. I cry. Dad has been ill for many years and I know he will not likely survive this ordeal, but Ian. Ian is too young. His life work is not done. He still has so much to offer.
Ian speaks about the possibility of death with such calm. He’s not afraid, but I am. I don’t want to lose him. I am not prepared to let him go. Over the phone from India, Ian teaches me about no birth and no death, that we continue living in all that we touch, simply a different manifestation than our physical bodies. But this is too difficult for me to accept at the moment. I am attached. I do not want to let him go. Ian directs me to the teachings on impermanence and encourages me to meditate on the Buddha’s Five Remembrances: being of the nature to grow old, the nature to become ill, the nature to die, the nature for all things to change and knowing that we will be separated from those we hold dear and that our only true possessions are the consequences of our actions.
MY DIARY ENTRY, DECEMBER 20, 1996:
Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India
Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked!
Why have I become so ill? All my bodily systems have gone off line. Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category and the medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago, I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma’s house. I know that she and her family would take me in, yet this saint’s refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks to me. I guess it allows me to prepare for death.
Have been in an almost constant state of meditation for weeks now. A deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phoned from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India.
It was not easy to communicate this to Carolyn, but I do believe she understands. My prayer is that she does not suffer unduly. Have sent Chotolal to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand painted on pipal leaves with pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine.
I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India:“Blessings and Love from Ian.” Writing the cards has exhausted me, but I feel satisfied and full, mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends, a framed photograph of Carolyn, my dearest friend and companion. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears, not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.
I keep falling asleep very quietly then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal’s anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal placed some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. I am enjoying the silence and solitude, now that he has left. It is about nine o’clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep on gentle wings.
DIARY ENTRY, DECEMBER 21, 1996:
Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India
Waking up was easy, getting up was a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night, but do not recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to construct a mental medicine wheel around me and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from everywhere.
Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read slowly, stopping frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. Is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations, or visions, only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever “THAT” is.
DIARY ENTRY, DECEMBER 22, 1996:
Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India
I woke up this morning, heard two crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this “death” is a spiritual one, as is the “rebirth.” I feel completely new this morning, as though I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along the path of understanding.